There are just four shopping days left before the Big Day. Four days when the supermarket queues will grow out of control, toy stores will be ransacked by parents turned Teletubby hunters, and bank balances will plummet deep into the red. Blake Morrison prepares to join the fray

Never again, you said. After last year, or was it the year before, you promised yourself you wouldn't leave your Christmas shopping so late. You forget now what the breaking-point was: the fist-fight over the parking space, the stunted fir tree, or the wrestling match with a little old lady over the last Cabbage Patch doll (you were sure it was you who had got there first, and really, she didn't look that old, and did she have to burst into tears and denounce you, loud enough for the whole shop to hear, as the kind of person who preys on poor, frail 90-year-old widows?).

No, Christmas shopping would be different this year. You'd learn from your sensible cousin, who does hers 11 months ahead, in the January sales. You'd do it in the summer. Or by mail order. Even last week, when there was nothing on in the office, you could have taken a day off work - God knows, they owe you some holiday - and the crowds wouldn't have been so bad.

But you didn't, did you? And you aren't lying on a beach far away from it all, either. You're screwed. You've still got most of your shopping to do.

And you know exactly what it's going to be like. Either you head into town, where the shops are running out of stocks and there's nowhere to park (not even the churchyard you used to sneak into: Unauthorised Cars Will Be Clamped, it says now). Or you drive to the giant out-of-town malls, where you'll be queueing from the slip road off the motorway and, once there, will end up walking miles. You could take a bus or train, if it weren't for all the parcels to bring back. You could use a cab, but there'll be none to find.

At least, in a queue somewhere, there'll be time to ask yourself whether Christmas was like this in the past. Those sensuous childhood memories - the scatterblaze of fairy lights, the tang of satsumas or pine needles, the slurpy kiss bestowed on you by an ancient stooping aunt - have little to do with consumerism. You can't, even from your teens, remember doing much shopping: wasn't it all accomplished in an hour or two on Christmas Eve?

But if there weren't so many things to buy then, or so many people to buy them for, worries about the creeping commercialisation of Christmas go a long way back. I remember from Sunday school, in the 1960s, having to debate this very issue: was Christmas about honouring Jesus's birth or was it about presents? My opposite number in the discussion had an impressive series of quotes to support her case that God and Mammon go together: "In thy presents is the fullness of joy" (Psalm 15); "Cast me not away from thy presents" (Psalm 51); "Serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presents with a song" (Psalm 100). She'd been creatively misquoting of course: those palpable, earthly "ts"s should have been an invisible, heavenly "ce". But the debate was lost by then, and so were we.

To bring to mind the pagan roots of Christmas can be a way of feeling less guilty. It's the time of year for foraging: the days are short and cold, and we're supposed to be a bit like squirrels, busily laying in stores for the dark times ahead. And since when was foraging supposed to be enjoyable? Suffering is the point. Of course, the perfect present is like the perfect partner: impossible to find. Naturally the Power Ranger, Buzz Lightyear or Teletubby you've had to trawl a hundred shops for is a piece of trash, and the child you acquired it for will be on to the next thing in no time. So what? It's for yourself you do these things. You wear yourself to a shred to justify pigging out on Christmas Day.

But it's hard to feel like a hunter-gatherer at the checkouts of Lakeside or Brent Cross. And even the agnostic may feel regret that there are more images of Baby Spice around this year than of Baby Jesus. Whatever happened to cribs? I was in Naples earlier this month, where the crib is a bigger deal than the Christ-mas tree: you can buy elaborate wooden ones in the market (not just a stable, but a whole Italian village), or make your own from papier mache. They're not piously Mariolatrous, either: it's customary to place celebrity figures around the holy family. The big favourites this year are Mother Teresa and Princess Di.

Yes, they do it better elsewhere - in Italy, in the Arctic Circle, in Florida (where most places stay open on Christmas Day). You can think of all the lovely elsewheres as you panic-buy over the next few days. You could be there. It needn't be like this. Next year you'll do it differently, you really will.







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